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The beautiful Baker estate, in scenic Dulvey, Louisiana
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GOTY 2017: #5 Resident Evil 7

Resident Evil 7 is a tour of the franchise’s history

Resident Evil 7 feels like an inevitability. In another plane of existence, it was Silent Hills, the ambitious reboot of that flailing franchise, preceded by the singular P.T. — the mysterious playable teaser that Konami released in August 2014. But the timeline changed. When Silent Hills was cancelled following the unusually public departure of Konami’s star developer, Hideo Kojima, it seemed for a while that P.T. would remain an isolated experience, that rare AAA short preceding the feature-length main attraction.

So in our timeline, it’s Resident Evil 7 as the ambitious reboot of a flailing horror franchise. It’s the appropriately titled Resident Evil 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour demo preceding the strongest entry in a series many had left for dead. Like something out of a horror game, Resident Evil 7 has reanimated the corpse of Silent Hills but, in doing so, has made something more ambitious and more successful than I’d have imagined.

In rethinking the franchise, the most obvious upgrade for Resident Evil 7 may seem trite: an upgrade from third-person to first-person controls. While fans may have shaken their fists, proclaiming that a Resident Evil game “can’t be” in first-person, the developers at Capcom knew what the shift in perspective bought them. The most successful horror games of late have all been first-person, from Alien: Isolation to the entire Amnesia series to, of course, the P.T. demo.

#5 Resident Evil 7
For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 throughout Dec, one each day. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises!
Previously: #6 - Persona 5

The addition of first-person not only introduces an intimacy to a series that had become a lesson in self-parody, but it takes that pursuit to its current technological limit: Resident Evil 7 would not only be in first-person, but it would be playable entirely in virtual reality, the kind of enhancement often conflated with a bonus feature or a bullet point but which is, in actuality, something unprecedented. While much of the VR game market is dominated by arcade-style games and proofs of concept, here is a massive, highly polished AAA franchise playable entirely in virtual reality. And it’s scary as shit.

A screenshot from Kitchen, the Resident Evil 7 virtual reality tech demo.
The so-called “Kitchen” demo was the world’s first look at what would become Resident Evil 7.

And VR was how the game was introduced to the world. The so-called Kitchen demo was revealed as a PlayStation VR tech demo at E3 2015. There was no official connection to Resident Evil — though director Koshi Nakanishi said the notched T in Kitchen was meant to suggest a 7 — but Kitchen instead proved that the technology that Capcom was building and the technology Sony was building could deliver an exquisitely creepy experience.

To return to the influence of P.T. on Resident Evil, Capcom is quick to point out that its project was in the works long before P.T. made internet waves in 2014. And perhaps that’s true, a case of simultaneous invention, like the parallel discoveries of calculus in the 17th century. With Konami’s Fox Engine and Capcom’s new RE Engine both designed to deliver photo-realistic environments, and the claustrophobia of hallways and a first-person perspective well established by earlier titles, it was clear horror games would benefit from the kind of AAA production polish a massive developer could bring to bear.

P.T.’s neverending hallway (not pictured: Lisa)
A long hallway in the Baker mansion (pictured: Jack)

So maybe Capcom had identified this opportunity before P.T. upended our expectations. It’s possible … and it’s also beside the point. Where Resident Evil 7 feels most like P.T. is the very beginning of the game, in the Baker Mansion. And, notably, this is the setting of the Resident Evil 7 demo titled, tellingly, Resident Evil 7 Teaser: Beginning Hour. Much as P.T. was a playable teaser for the now cancelled Silent Hills, Beginning Hour is a similarly cryptic teaser for Resident Evil 7.

Finally, some positive affirmation. Thanks, RE7 demo!

Over the course of two updates in the months preceding the full game’s release, Beginning Hour began to reveal itself to players eager to divine what the teaser was doing. Like P.T., Beginning Hour is intentionally obtuse, requiring crowd-sourced efforts to unravel the teaser’s puzzles and, ultimately, rewarding players with something to bring into the main campaign. Like P.T., Beginning Hour excluded combat in favor of puzzles, and gore in favor of ghosts. It didn’t feel precisely like a Resident Evil game and, thanks to a generous standalone experience and millions of downloads, it was able to make that case to an audience that was rightfully skeptical of a new Resident Evil game.

After players had exhausted the Beginning Hour demo, the full game arrived. It felt like a do-over. The conclusion of the what-if scenario that P.T. promised. Resident Evil 7 begins amid the now-familiar Baker Mansion, a sort of hillbilly-horror variant of the original game’s Spencer Mansion. And like that original game, what starts as a classic haunted mansion horror story evolves in a weird construct, with more action than you’d expect.

Look familiar?

In many ways, Resident Evil 7 is a microcosm of the entire Resident Evil franchise, up to and including RE6 one could argue. It starts slow, but builds in volume (and bodycount) by the end. We’re on a different timeline now. With RE7’s focus on those things that make it very much a Resident Evil game — conspiracy, mutation, a certain evil corporation — this is almost certainly not where Silent Hills, with that franchise’s focus on psychological horror, would have taken us.

That Resident Evil 7 would be an improvement following the cacophonous Resident Evil 6 shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, there was almost nowhere to go but up. But Resident Evil 7 is something far more ambitious. It’s a game full of reference — both to itself and to the world of horror games that have filled the half-decade void while Resident Evil figured out what it was again — but in assembling the parts, the development team has managed to create something greater than the sum of those parts. Resident Evil 7 isn’t only one of the best games in the storied, two-decade-old series, but a confident new entry in the survival horror landscape.

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